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The World Has Gone Crazy, but Maybe Not Quite as Crazy as We Fear

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My wife and I went to the bank recently on a business-related errand. Unlike a number of other states, in Arizona, our banks are still open. (The irony of people walking into bank lobbies wearing face masks without everyone assuming they’re there to rob the place is, by the way, an amusing one.)

Social distancing rules meant we had to have an appointment to meet with a banker. No walk-ins. Even the teller lines were limited to just a few people, with the rest left waiting outside.

Our banker was a young guy, just out of college. He met us by the door and walked us back to his desk. “I have to wear this mask,” he told us with an apologetic smile, stopping just short of rolling his eyes. It was bank policy for the pandemic. He proceeded to put it on, incorrectly, the mask only covering his mouth but not his nose. I opted not to point it out. He made small talk, asked how we were holding up. He didn’t have to explain what he meant. The subtext of every conversation these days is what life is like with life as usual on hiatus and everyone stuck at home.

“Things for us really aren’t that much different,” I said. “We both work from home anyway. Strangest thing is that the kids have all been home since the beginning of March. Getting a bit stir crazy.”

“I had a couple come in here,” he replied, “who said that after being at home with their kids for the past month, they sent the order to have all their remaining embryos destroyed.” He chuckled in a way that was almost pleading, somewhere between an appeal to laugh with him at that situation (whether in sympathy or scorn was unclear) and a vague sense of discomfort. I had the sense, thinking about it later, that he almost knew that what he had presented as a humorous anecdote was actually a horror story. Almost, but not quite — as though the sense of the natural law had been dulled in him just enough that he couldn’t quite place his finger on what was pricking his conscience.

I was already annoyed about something unrelated when I walked into the bank, and I was distracted by my thoughts. Small talk was something I could handle on autopilot, but I wasn’t prepared for a comment like this. I went blank. I think my wife said something along the lines of “that’s awful.” At least she had the presence of mind to say something. I, on the other hand, was so caught off guard that I was stunned into silence. And before I could recover, the conversation had moved on.

As I tend to do in situations like this, I second-guessed myself. I should have said how evil that story was. But I’m here to deal with my accounts, not have a moral argument with a kid who had no say one way or the other over these people. Would me dropping a moral lecture into a banking session have made any difference anyway, or would it just have made it more difficult to get my business taken care of? I debated with myself mentally for a while as we moved on, ultimately kicking my ever-present guilt about such matters to the curb.

On some level, I think I realized in that moment that I am running out of gas for all the endless fights, seemingly about everything. Too many battles. Which ones to choose?

The world has, as you’ve no doubt noticed, become absolutely unhinged. We are at a point where a mundane trip to the bank becomes an occasion to “joke” casually about parents giving a kill order on their lab-created frozen children because the ones currently running around are inconveniencing them. And if that’s not off-putting enough, the joke-teller is wearing a facial expression– obscuring mask as part of the observation of mandatory precautions surrounding a global pandemic of unknown origin, scope, and severity.

Everything about life these days feels surreal. As if we’re part of a dystopian sci-fi movie, an iteration of Blade Runner without all the neon and trench coats and endless rain. In our movie, the sun is still shining, the birds still sing, the characters’ bills still have to be paid whether they were forced out of a job or not, and nobody is entirely certain whether he’s facing a serious threat from an unknown, invisible disease or merely a massive global overreaction. In our movie, the writers were very lazy about filling in all the giant plot holes. (Perhaps this is why they introduced something called “murder hornets” at this point in the story. Because why not?)

The truth is, we know far too little about the COVID-19 virus at this moment to make a solid assessment about whether the governments of the world acted proportionately in an attempt to slow its spread. Trying to figure that out right now might very well be like trying to write the history of the Spanish Flu pandemic during the summer of 1918, after the first wave had subsided but only months before the second wave hit. We won’t know what we don’t know about how this will all play out until we have the benefit of hindsight. And we need to have the humility to admit that.

Humility, though, is not a modern virtue. Not at all.

What we do know is that COVID is responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths in less than two months’ time — over 80,000 of them here in the United States. Whatever comparison we want to make to other diseases or causes of death, those numbers don’t seem trivial to me. Those are real people, real lives, some of them family members of people in our audience. One reader told me recently that his wife lost two uncles to the virus in the span of three days, one of them only in his 40s — a man with young children.

Every day, even before the coronavirus, Christians were faced with seemingly endless uphill social battles and rearguard actions. We have utterly lost the culture, but we can’t just concede defeat. Let’s be honest: we can’t even admit to ourselves just how desperate our cause is for fear that we’ll become disheartened and give up. So we just keep going through the same motions, hoping something will change for the better, all while trying not to think about how it’s really only getting worse. If we at least look as though we’re fighting, it’s better than nothing, right? Pugilism, whether futile or not, has become our brand.

I wonder, sometimes, if this is why we tilt at so damn many windmills. We can find enemies of The Cause pretty much anywhere, real or imagined. This pandemic has certainly provided us with a few new ones — who are, if you think about it for a minute, pretty much the same as the old ones.

“If we can just pin this on our political or theological opponents,” some folks seem to think, “then we can dismiss this whole thing as part of their evil agenda, instead of having to try to come up with a prudent course of action to begin solving the real problems it presents.”

It’s as though everything in life has become politicized to the point of a sort of binary tribalism. You’re either a liberal or a conservative, a lockdown proponent or a COVID truther, and so on. It might as well be a choice between the Jets or the Sharks: “When you’re a Jet you’re a Jet all the way from your first cigarette to your last dying day…”

With all the confirmation bias, there’s little room left for nuance, for the seeking of a position that bridges the gap between extremes. There’s evidently no virtue in the mean, no merit to navigating the tricky course between the shoals — acknowledging, for example, that some precautions should be taken for the purposes of public health and safety but that severely damaged economies might well kill even more people than the virus. There is a seeming failure in our discourse to recognize it’s OK to believe both — and to figure out how best to act accordingly.

For me, the amount (and kind) of arguing over all of this (and a number of other things besides) has been sufficient cause to tune out most of the online Catholic world for the past couple of weeks. Frankly, it’s been a refreshing reprieve. Yesterday, however, I dipped my toes back in when it was brought to my attention that a group of Catholic prelates and laymen had issued yet another appeal and are, yet again, soliciting signatures. (Apparently, Cardinal Sarah voted for it before he voted against it.)

The appeal is, in my view, a mix of uncontroversial Catholic sentiment and a fair bit of fear pandering — somewhat ironically, since the appeal itself objects to the intentional creation of panic by unnamed global powers. It implicitly casts doubt on the death toll — which is, when you look at how epidemiological data are tallied, likely being under-, not over-reported — and makes reference to (and in fact emphasizes in bold text) the threat of the “epidemic” (sic) leading to a “world government beyond all control.” It warns about unspecified “powers” and “shady business interests” seeking to oppress or control, while offering subtle editorializing on the efficacy of various social distancing measures, treatments, and vaccines, as though all the options are already on the table, their effects tested, the outcomes known. “Citizens must be given the opportunity,” it says, “to refuse these restrictions on personal freedom, without any penalty whatsoever being imposed on those who do not wish to use vaccines, contact tracking or any other similar tool.”

For what it’s worth, I agree that citizens should have that freedom. But I also bristle at the weaponization of the very kind of suspicion of nameless forces that has my social media feeds chock-full of conspiracies from dogmatic anti-vaccination proponents; people who think we’ll all be microchipped (you know, the sign of the beast, probably); and those who think the entire global outbreak was planned and promulgated by some shadowy cabal who intends to exploit its effects at our grave detriment. (For what it’s worth, I still think Steven Mosher’s explanation is most plausible: the virus escaped a lab in Wuhan accidentally, and China decided to inflict it on the world by not closing down international travel so the Chinese wouldn’t suffer the economic disadvantages alone. Like the good socialists they are, they felt the need to share.)

Some of you will no doubt identify with the rhetoric of the appeal more than I do. Some will share my more skeptical view. But whichever side you land on, can anyone tell me exactly what another online petition is supposed to do? Haven’t we had enough of them? The whole world is drowning in these petitions, and to my knowledge, few, if any, have moved the needle so much as an inch on the issues they seek to address. They do, however, offer the illusion of having taken action on something. “I signed my name,” we think. “I helped make a difference.” And when, inevitably, nothing changes, we can console ourselves with the self-delusion that at least we did our part. It wasn’t our fault that the effort failed. We typed in our name and email address, after all!

Does anyone really believe that the kind of people who would plan a global pandemic for the purposes of gaining unprecedented power over the masses are going to pack up shop and go home because of a few thousand (or even a few million) e-signatures? Does anyone think entreaties to media, medical personnel, pastors, or global leaders would slow the juggernaut of a real-life Pentaverate? These nefarious schemers are allegedly perfectly willing to kill hundreds of thousands of their fellow human beings — potentially even more — for political purposes. (I mean, I think they’re killing people. On the other hand, if, as some of the scoffers insist, the whole thing is just a hoax… then maybe they’re only fake killing people. It’s hard to keep up.)

The kind of fear and sensationalism running rampant right now are great for drumming up business, as some sectors of media — yes, even Catholic media — have figured out. What they don’t do is help people reach clear-headed or realistic conclusions about what they are facing. Admittedly, I spent a good chunk of the past decade imbibing a lot of this same fear. I was convinced that civil unrest, economic collapse, and totalitarianism were around every corner. I was just waiting for Catholics to face outright persecution at any moment. I spent far too many of the best years of my life worrying about what I thought could happen, and far too few of them living in the present moment of what was happening. There’s a real cost to living the “imminent doom and gloom” mentality. If you’re prepared for the zombie apocalypse but forgot to be a human being for all the time leading up to it, is it worth not having your brain eaten until month two, when the ammo runs out?

In a way, I think traditional Catholics are more prone than most to believe in conspiracies, and not without reason. After all, we’ve been warned about them by both popes and prophecies. But even real, known conspiratorial threats to Catholic life and thought like the Freemasons are often enlarged in our minds into omnipresent bogeymen. We see them under every rock; we suspect they are hiding in every shadow. Every societal shift gone wrong becomes the work of their unseen hand. Things are bad, it’s true, so we’re desperate for someone — anyone — to blame. The more wicked the plot, the more intense their hatred of the faith, the more vindicated we believe we’ll be when their scheming is eventually crushed and Our Lord claims total victory.

And while there’s certainly some truth in all of this, it can easily become a sort of lazy, excuse-laden approach to our problems. “Principalities and powers, man. Nothing we can do against an enemy like that.” Or worse, there are those who are so certain that we’re getting close to the end times that they fail to keep up with the obligations they have right now. (Why show up for work or pay your mortgage during the apocalypse?)

Are there things to be afraid of in the midst of this pandemic? Certainly — although I’d place an unprepared death outside the state of grace while unconscious on a ventilator at the top of that particular list. By all accounts, those who get sick with this virus get very ill very quickly once symptoms present. Fear number one should be not having the chance to make a good confession and receive last rites. After that, all other concerns trail behind with a good bit of breathing room.

But there are real secondary concerns. Obviously, there are opportunists across the ideological spectrum, and those on the left have few if any principles other than total victory. Little tyrants in waiting around the world are flexing their muscles in places where they have gathered the political capital to do so, curb-stomping civil liberties, harassing innocent families for their children breaking isolation measures by — GASP! — playing with other kids, locking down access to public parks and beaches where viruses are least likely to spread, stopping people from planting vegetable gardens, and generally keeping people confined under the boot of their 90-day free trial of an overreaching police state. The people responsible for these kinds of policies and police actions should never be forgotten by their constituents. And provided I’m right, and elections come around again, they should be sent very strong messages at the ballot box.

There are other places, like where I live, however, where the lockdown is hardly what I’d describe as severe. There are some commonsense precautions, certainly. And yes, even these pose a threat to small businesses whose operating model requires significant numbers of customers in small retail spaces. But all in all, they don’t strike me as especially onerous. Ours is a fairly libertarian state, and the actions taken here reflect the kind of politicians we’ve elected, just as has happened elsewhere. Our stores are open, we don’t need travel papers, you can even go back into bars and barbershops already. Life is beginning to resume in the way that life tends to do.

All of us, even work-from-home introverts like me, are itching for that. To return to life like it was before. And I suspect, given time, that we will come closer to that reality than most of the alarmists right now seem to think. The curve has been flattened, and though we’re not out of the woods — opening things up seems fairly likely to lead to new waves of infections — we need to make sure that people can get back to productive activity. Some precautions will have to stay in place, but starving is arguably just as bad a way to die as acute respiratory distress, all things being equal. You can’t just tell folks they can’t go to work but that they also have to pay all their bills as they normally would. That’s insane.

Contrary to many of my peers, I think there’s real hope that we can rebuild something like normalcy. Whatever he might be hoping for, I do not foresee a direct line from our present situation to an Orwellian future where we all have Bill Gates propaganda playing on camera-enabled television screens in our homes that can never be turned off when our vaccine-transmitted Microsoft-manufactured microchip (ahem, sorry, MARK OF THE BEAST!!!) is in range. For Heaven’s sake, his company still hasn’t figured out how to issue Windows 10 updates that don’t crash everyone’s computers, and that operating system has been out for five years.

We always hear a lot from the “bad guys are everywhere and they’re coming for what you love” folks about the New World Order. To be honest, I don’t see a world government coming just yet, either, and I firmly disbelieve that the pandemic is part of some orchestrated plot to usher one in. (If I’m wrong, you’ll be too busy being rounded up to say you told me so.)

We have discovered, on the other hand, that many of our neighbors are willing to report on us in Orwellian fashion for breaking their perception of the rules. We should remember who they were, too, when social niceties resume. They should be firmly excluded from freedom-loving company like the commies they are.

In crises like these, we see who people really are. Bad folks act badly; good ones act virtuously. Human beings are kind of predictable that way. These behaviors are magnified when seen in those with political power.

In that sense, there’s a lot less to see here than the propagandists want you to believe. Keeping people agitated and afraid yields dividends in audience share and influence. And there’s a potency in the unfalsifiable “they’re out to get you and we’re on to their game”–type narratives. Even when they don’t come true, they only have to say, “Maybe not this time, but keep your eyes peeled, friends. They’re still lurking in the shadows, waiting to strike. Remember when they finally come that we tried to warn you.”

So to sum up: I’m not arguing that nothing is afoot. There really are awful people trying to figure out how to gain profit and power while the crisis blooms. But I believe what we are witnessing is not the result of some master plan. What we’ve seen over the past two months are the effects of the first real global pandemic in modern history. The world reacted the way a globally televised, internet-enabled, internationally connected planet does. We have reached a point in human history when many of us are godless and therefore terrified of death. We live in a society that thinks safe spaces and trigger warnings are pretty good ideas. Helicopter parenting is an unfortunate feature of the generation currently raising children, and it would be odd to expect the same generation’s politicians not to give in to that temptation, too. As the saying goes: Never attribute to malice what can be explained by incompetence.

It is a trope of science fiction that common threats to the human race are catalysts for uncommon unity. Sadly, reality hasn’t borne this out. The situation has quite clearly further divided us. Ideological fault lines have been exposed. The crisis has exacerbated our growing sense of distrust in the organs of power, both in Church and state, and, to perhaps a surprising extent, in each other. It has created some unusual alliances, but it has also made enemies out of people who once were friends.

As Francis did when he seized the reins of power in the Church, this pandemic has caused many societal toxins to rise to the surface. Our weaknesses are being laid bare. Perhaps God is allowing what is happening for this very reason. What I find myself wondering — and I’m asking this of myself as much as anyone — is do we have what it takes to learn from this and grow stronger, or will we only sink deeper into confusion, division, and even despair?

It’s an answer, I’m afraid, that will come only with time.

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